There are moments at the movies when, watching one film or another, for whatever reason, everything seems to come together. And then there is every other waking minute of my life. I have spent the better part of the last five years attempting to sift through piles and piles of the low-budget relationship drama with a comic touch or the low-budget relationship comedy with a dramatic hook, all of them made on the cheap and each of them featuring unique problems that, with a little more craft or artistic concern, might have been overcome. You know what I'm talking about; anonymous, black-walled bars with no ambient sound, no music and no patrons, lit with Christmas lights. Single camera shoots with single takes that offer none of the dramatic momentum that can be created in editing and post-production. No establishing shots, no wide shots, no reaction shots, no actors. Whip pans between faces in a conversation. Nothing contemplative, nothing that transcends the moment, no big ideas to tie moments together. No real recognition that cinema is a visual and auditory form, no real attempt to say much of anything with the form at all. The overwhelming majority of these films represent the absolute death of my hope for the "democratization of cinema" through more inexpensive technologies. So, it is hard for me to express the depth of the pleasure I took watching Maren Ade's beautiful Everyone Else at the New York Film Festival this year; let's just say Maren Ade has redeemed a thousand MiniDV sins with a film that is as cinematic as it is moving.
Everyone Else tracks the decline, death and possible resurrection of a romantic relationship between Gitte (the phenomenal Birgit Minichmayr, who first caught my eye with her performance in Barbara Albert's 2006 filmFalling) and Chris (Lars Eidinger); she's a free-spirited woman who can't help but speak her mind and he is a sullen and sensitive architect waiting for his big break. Ade shows us the pair on vacation at Chris' family home on Sardinia, and the languid pace of sunlit days is offset by the growing tension between the pair; Chris awaits word of the outcome of an architectural competition he entered while Gitte grows more and more restless with the pleasantries of bourgeois living. Slowly and surely, Chris' sensitivity gives way under the strain of Gitte's balls-out honesty, and Ade brings tension to each scene like a series of stones thrown into an otherwise tranquil pool of water; each word and emotion impacts the surface of Gitte and Chris' relationship only to ripple out into bigger and stronger problems. By the time Chris humiliates Gitte in order to "fit in" with the boorish behavior of a friendly rival, everything in the film is up for grabs and Ade and her pair of excellent actors have somehow, slowly and surely, created a real sense of hurt and collapse that only an openhearted forgiveness might overcome.
Of course, the story of young lovers in crisis is the stuff of so many small and insignificant films, but what they lack in dramatic structure, pacing, tone and performance, Ade makes up for in spades. Even more impressively, the film feels natural without feeling improvised, which is an important distinction. It has become almost a cliché to forsake rehearsal and writing in the name of a story outline and improvisational performance; inspired by the temporally exotic naturalism of Cassavetes, maybe, or any number of independent films of the late 20th century, these films seem to confuse improvisation and realism. There is nothing more "actory" and alienating than watching unrehearsed actors improvising their parts in the hope of collectively finding a story; this technique usually carries all of the naturalism of watching a graduate (on a good day) acting class exercise which is, you know, the last thing on earth anyone should ever be doing in a cinema. There is nothing natural about self-aware performance, particularly performance that has to carry the weight of believability and the entire narrative on its usually inexperienced shoulders. Everyone Else absolutely crushes this idea by using the tools of cinema to create space for performance and by allowing the story, as intimate as it may be, to lay underneath the actors; Ade uses performance as a palimpsest instead of a showy pillar, allowing the actors to convey real feeling and move their way through believable, emotionally complex moments that have multiple beats, that develop, that breathe and feel very much alive.
Ade has a beautiful way with the camera; very still, medium shots of the couple or a single actor with very few close ups at all, always with a sense that the frame is patiently mediating the distance between her characters. In most films, a break-up scene would alternate between a close-up of someone confessing their true feelings, and a reverse shot of, say, a confused partner, not understanding how he arrived at this moment of truth, trying to hold things together. Big feelings, writ large on the screen. Ade understands that to give primacy to any one of the emotions on the screen would be to undermine the truth of every other moment in the movie, and so she keeps the close up out of it, underscoring her evenhanded approach to all of the feelings her actors give her. Which is not to say the film seems "one note" or flat in visual terms; Ade uses the rooms of the home, the contrast between blazing sunlight and the dark of night, and exotic exterior locations to reframe her actors. This lends the film a gentle pace (again, room to breathe) and instead of visual, "directory" tricks or cinematic bells and whistles that would draw lines under and around the film's moments, Ade uses a delicate touch that allows the performances to fill up the film with meaning. Sure, the film has a few flaws; I think that the movie is relatively uneven in its attempts to balance our sympathies for both characters and I couldn't help but favor one of them over the other. But that is a minor complaint, if only because I was so compelled by the character that I couldn't wait to see what happened next. I was heartened to read that younger film lovers were flocking to The New York Film Festival for screenings of Antichrist and Trash Humpers last week, but I never heard tell of what became of Everyone Else. In a perfect world, cinephiles would embrace something this lovely with the same interest and curiosity they bring to controversy, but I clearly don't live in a perfect world. Here's hoping that Everyone Else finds a home anyway.